Stories Untold: Missed Representations of Lived Experiences

On the edge of a desolate road, two hours away from the nearest school, exists a row of tin “houses”. Perhaps more accurately, they could be described as roughly organized slabs of tin propped up against each other. The local UP chairman considers the village in the district of Cumilla on either side of this road to be the heart of all poverty-related troubles. The day before, he had spoken woefully to the research team about the lack of access to education and healthcare, blaming it for the deplorable state of youth in the area.

This village was part of our study area for the Adolescent Transition and Vulnerabilities research, which was conducted to understand the impact of COVID-19 on decisions taken regarding adolescents’ schooling, work, and marriage in a time of economic crisis. Each day, we followed our work plan and drove from our temporary residence at the local BRAC Learning Centre (BLC) to the intended village and then split up alone or into groups of two, checklist in hand, to look for respondents purposely selected from our survey. In the middle of such a day, the two of us found ourselves caught in the rain without cell service, a few hundred meters of winding narrow roads away from the car. It was these winding narrow roads that led us to the story of a young girl, that we would have otherwise missed – had it not been for the unexpected downpour that we initially thought was a hindrance.

We ran into the nearest shelter. We were greeted by a boy child in tattered clothes and asked to speak to his mother. Upon making her acquaintance, we informed her we were there for research purposes from Brac University and were looking for an adolescent girl who was compelled to start working during the COVID-19 lockdowns to provide for her home. The woman was sorry that her daughter, Shahana, was unavailable as she was exactly our required type of respondent.

In any other case, we would have thanked her for her time and been on our way, but the rain beat down harder and Shahana’s mother asked us to wait inside and have something to eat. She brought out small bowls of muri-chanachur and began telling us her story.

Shahana’s mother was the second of five daughters. Her own mother had passed away giving birth to her youngest sister, and her father had succumbed to grief soon after. Although her oldest sister was married, the other four sisters, without any guardians, were immediately the focus of scrutiny. She spoke gratefully of her father-in-law, then only a neighbour, who offered his son to marry her and provide all four sisters with a roof in the house. With him, she had two sons and two daughters, Shahana being the third child and younger daughter. To this day, she feels her father-in-law cared for her just as a birth father would. The state of the house was rickety, it was bare-boned, built on someone else’s marshy land. Taking the girls in, even in their destitute condition seemed to her, another indication of his kindness.

Caption: Families spend their lives earnings on makeshift tin houses in the hopes that their children would someday lead a more comfortable life

Shahana’s maternal aunt had started working at a nearby agro-processing factory at the tender age of thirteen. Young Shanana also followed her aunt’s footsteps, and under her guidance, now works at the same factory. Her father, a mere day labourer, earned either by tilling land or doing household chores for other people; consequently, none of the children in their family received any formal education. Both Shahana and her older brother had to start working to support the family at a young age, the wages from which partially enabled their mother to buy some low, marshy land on the side of the road. Up till now, they had managed to amass some sand and soil required to build a house but couldn’t afford to actually build it.

Shahana lives in the agro-processing factory in which she works, situated a few hours away in a factory town. She was missed deeply and her family anxiously awaited her next call. Her mother talked about the unavailability of jobs or security within the village with tears in her eyes and blamed her own inherited poverty for not being able to provide for her children. She regrets not being able to overcome the generational burdens before her children grew up and worried that Shahana’s children would also receive the brunt of their misery. However, along with a few takas to take home, the factory provided Shahana with food and shelter. With the lack of schools nearby, and local young men being primarily involved in drugs and depravity, living at her workplace seemed to be the safest option. But people still talked. Young women in the area were not supposed to work. If it were not for Shahana’s aunt, her parents would never have gotten the courage to let her go.

We had already known from our survey that adolescent girls in the village rarely had formal jobs. In Bangladesh, the children are often not part of larger family decisions, meaning that the adolescents are often unaware of the history and rationale behind restrictions imposed by their parents. This conversation revealed what allowed or compelled a few adolescents to break through barriers and engage in outside paid work and what happens to the rest of the family when they do. While focus group discussions done with parents revealed some common fears of safety and ostracisation, it was these one-to-one conversations that allowed for in-depth exploration of their individual reasons, especially in cases of families which collectively went against the norms. It also brought to light the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Opportunity and access to paid work separated adolescents who could do nothing but dwell on their destitution and await a fortunate marriage from those who could attempt to pull their family out of it, often at the cost of notable backlash from their community.

When the rain cleared, we thanked Shahana’s mother for her time and left in search of our car back to the BLC. Having entered the arena with target respondents and a plan of enquiry, it humbled us each time we found such critical information in places we did not initially plan to explore. With the resource constraints of output-based research, it was often difficult to make time to join the locals for a cup of tea and scope out the field. The context required to fully understand the stories collected exists in verandah gossip with the women of the house and the tea-stall addas with the elderly men, often hidden away from our calculated days of fieldwork decided simply by adding hours required to conduct interviews.

Shravasti Roy Nath is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)